Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Future of Benedictinism

Pressed for time this morning, I am printing a reflection from two years ago that I had never quite finished...

Most places I travel the Benedictine houses are basically healthy and stable. We seem, as a confederation, to be moving toward a median house size which is perhaps between 10-25, and away from a time in which giant houses such as Gethsemane and St. John's were the flagships. While Benedictines generally exude a robust and creative fidelity, vocations tend not to flood in, as one might expect from the opining of certain talking heads who blame the vocations crisis on a flagging of orthodoxy.

The truth is that the monastic life, by the standards of the modern world, is deliberately boring. This is not at all to say that it is without challenges; indeed, the very ordinariness of the life brings daily challenges of fidelity and trust in God's providence. But it is to say that what monks do is a stumbling block to the world. This has always been part of the prophetic function of the withdrawal to the margins that is as fundamental aspect of the monastic commitment. Every generation has its blind spots, and an overemphasis on activity is one of our greatest. Hence, monasteries will not be rewarding places for those out to change the world b y doing good, by spreading the faith and so on. These are noble activities of course, but the enthusiasm that drives them is susceptible to abuse and burnout because of our cultural short-sightedness.

If this is the case, have Benedictines hope for the necessary vocations to continue our institutions? As I hinted above, many important houses continue to shrink, but many more smaller houses seem to be growing, if slightly. Obviously, I believe that faith in God and a willingness to invite people to monastic life means that communities will always be able to find a few willing to take the life on. On the other hand, the tradition is clear that the bias is in favor of turning newcomers away, or at least making them prove themselves. In a fickle world, any initial opposition is liable to turn a candidate's interest toward somone else. But a too-quick acceptance of candidates and a less-than-thorough probing of the novice's motives will allow in many who cannot live the life in its full parameters. Most communities adopt something in between: not making life tough on newcomers and making some allowance for their personal brokenness, hoping to mend it in some measure by monastic formation, and at the same time making the discernment process longer and keeping a certain burden of work always at hand which tends to discourage those unable to make the leap of faith necessary to understanding the 'hard and difficult way' by which we go to God.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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